Mr. Speaker, I must first mention that I will be sharing my time with my colleague, the hon. member for Longueuil—Saint-Hubert.
We are here today to debate a motion that would allow us to debate more often and at greater length in this place. Debate is what drives us, what drives democracy, and we look forward to doing it.
I remember seeing Gilles Duceppe's troops arguing with passion and guts when I was younger. Since October 21, my Bloc Québécois colleagues have been doing so well that we are very much looking forward to being here again.
Of course, circumstances dictate that we must find hybrid ways of doing things, not only to debate but also to point out the flaws in the government's response to the COVID-19 crisis. It is our job as parliamentarians to put forward proposals and ideas, and we have spent enough time in our ridings to understand how our constituents are dealing with the crisis and need help.
Directly on the ground, speaking virtually with local stakeholders, we can see that government assistance in times of crisis is extremely important, essential even. We are talking about the survival of small businesses and the financial security of our own people.
Since the crisis began, the federal government has announced many assistance programs. I am sure that most of my colleagues will agree or will have made the same observations as I have. These programs, as generous as they may be, are not suited to everyone. In my riding, Avignon—La Mitis—Matane—Matapédia, many people are still falling through the cracks.
Today I would like to talk about one example in particular, Gaston Berthelot. I briefly touched on his situation earlier today, in questions and comments, but I would like to tell the House more about him.
He is a 60-year-old paramedic. He has a congenital heart problem and had to stop working for health reasons, because he could have serious complications if he were to contract the coronavirus. He called Service Canada, and an employee told him he was not eligible for the CERB because it was his decision to stop working. His employer refuses to compensate him, and so does the government.
I will digress for a moment. We often seem to forget something of great importance in these times. What is being done in Quebec, Canada and elsewhere in the world, namely putting the economy on hold, is being done for the sole purpose of protecting people's health. However, those people in fragile health are the very people who have been forgotten. I am not going to dwell on long-term care homes in Quebec. The most vulnerable are in precarious situations and have been forgotten in this crisis.
Mr. Berthelot is at risk of serious complications. I am not the one saying so, but rather his attending physician and also a representative of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada who was interviewed by Cieu FM, a radio station in Baie-des-Chaleurs that I want to salute.
I would remind members that Mr. Berthelot is a paramedic and that it is a little harder for him to telework. He is in direct contact with sick people every day. Therefore, he had to stop working, but not because he did not want to work. He tried to work. People who want to go to work are being encouraged to do so. The assistance programs are there for people who cannot go to work, but he was penalized.
In the case of Mr. Berthelot, the federal government has obviously failed. Why does he not qualify for the CERB just because he, himself, made the decision to stop working? This is nonsense to me.
Here we have a perfect example of someone who wants to work. We often find that certain program criteria are too restrictive for some people and too lax for others. You guessed it: I am talking about the Liberal Party of Canada and the Conservative Party, which will use the Canada emergency wage subsidy to pay their employees, but that is another issue I will not get into.
Mr. Berthelot is in a very unfortunate situation, being without pay for two months. He is not the only one in this kind of situation, because the government has also decided to close its Service Canada offices. That was justifiable early on in the crisis for reasons we can all understand, but as the lockdown gradually eases and certain sectors of the economy reopen, our local merchants are proving to us that it is possible to reopen businesses and serve the public by putting in place a number of health measures.
Services provided by Service Canada offices are fairly essential, especially in times of crisis. People often forget that about 45% of Quebeckers are functionally illiterate, which means they struggle to understand what they are reading. That makes it virtually impossible for them to fill out forms online without help. Now those people are being asked to go online or call Service Canada, but it is practically impossible to get a hold of anyone there.
I do not know if you have ever tried it, Mr. Speaker, but I know a man in Baie-des-Chaleurs, Fortin De Nouvelle, who spent a whopping 18 days trying to reach an agent on the Service Canada line. He ended up calling my riding office, and of course my team rallied to help him out. We managed to put him in touch with an official, but we waited several days for a simple question, for a service that could have been provided while adhering to appropriate public health guidelines.
Forcing people to use online services completely ignores the reality of rural areas where, even in 2020, not everyone has Internet access. In my constituency office, we have received calls from families who were desperate because they could not register online, as they had no Internet access and could not talk to a Service Canada agent. Again, our office teams are taking action to help these people.
We end up wondering about the work that public service offices have to do and the work that constituency offices have to do. We want to be there for people, and it is our job to be there, but there is a certain amount of work in between that the government should be doing. These are not second-class citizens; there are no classes. They are entitled to effective service that should be available in times of crisis.
The solution is quite simple, and that is to reopen the Service Canada offices as soon as possible. I have just listed off some reasons, and it is possible to do so, unless the federal government has another motive, namely not to reopen them. I am thinking of the small regional offices, whose business hours have been cut back considerably anyway. Why not close them to save money? Maybe that is the government’s reasoning. Who knows? If it wants to come clean, let it make the announcement and we will fight that battle.
Another one of the federal government’s glaring shortcomings in this crisis is the silence surrounding the tourism industry in my region, the Lower St. Lawrence and the Gaspé Peninsula. We have heard my colleagues from eastern Quebec speak about this at length. Tourism is a major economic driver that is critical to our region’s survival. In our region, it accounts for 1,500 businesses and 15,000 employees, half of them permanent. It also brings in 1.7 million visitors and generates more than $6 million in economic activity each year. This is not insignificant for our population. The industry is in dire need of funding so that it does not collapse, so that it can restart and continue to showcase what the Gaspé and the Lower St. Lawrence have to offer.
We are still waiting for those announcements, because most of these industries are falling through the cracks of federal programs, again, because they are seasonal. Some of our businesses have been waiting for announcements and have been under stress since March 15, and there is still nothing for them. A vast number of programs have been announced for a vast number of sectors, but there are still people who do not qualify.
For a few weeks now in our region, the public health authorities of Quebec have set up roadblocks to prevent people from entering our region in order to protect the population. Only owners of a principal residence could travel there. The roadblocks were lifted on May 18, which caused a wave of concern in the region, and rightly so. People are worried. They want to welcome tourists this summer, but not at any cost. In order to reopen their doors and put health measures in place, restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions must have financial support, and they have yet to receive any.
The Gaspé and the Lower St. Lawrence are known for their lobster, but also their crab, a word that has a very particular pronunciation back home. Lobster fishermen were not fans of the assistance announced by the government, since it was too little. This industry sells the majority of its catch to the United States and has lost nearly all of its income. We are talking about tens of thousands of dollars. Furthermore, the measures that have been implemented are poorly designed, because the fishermen must be paid by percentage of catch and not by the week in order to be eligible for the program.
The measures for family-owned businesses are also poorly designed.
There are a lot of family-owned businesses in the Gaspé, fishermen with their sons or uncles, but they do not qualify either.
I will stop there. I think my colleague from Longueuil—Saint-Hubert will carry on. I shared a lot of examples to show that, regrettably, the federal government's programs are poorly designed; it is our job to make them better.